One month into the 2021 college football season, some seniors are separating themselves from the pack as top prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft. There are six newcomers this week to my list of the top 25 prospects for the 2022 Reese's Senior Bowl. Also, at the bottom of this piece, I've identified a dozen more honorable mentions looking for a spot in the top 75 overall picks next year.
The 2022 draft is still seven months away (April 28-30 in Las Vegas), so the evaluations of these players will change based on their play as the season unfolds, their results in athletic testing and, if they are fortunate enough to receive an invite, their performance in Senior Bowl week practices and the game itself (Feb. 5 on NFL Network).
One player from my initial list, Alabama edge rusher Christopher Allen, is not included here because he broke his foot while strip-sacking Miami Hurricanes quarterback D'Eriq King in the season opener and is unlikely to play again this year.
NOTE: Prospects are listed in ascending order. Heights and weights are via school measurements.
25) Darrian Beavers, LB, Cincinnati (6-foot-4, 255 pounds)
The Cincinnati native came home in 2019 after playing two years at UConn. A three-year starter for the Bearcats, Beavers has blossomed into one of the best linebackers in the country, operating effectively in coverage (two interceptions in 2020) and using his strength around the line of scrimmage. Beavers shed blocks from offensive tackles regularly against Indiana two weeks ago, whether blitzing in the A-gap or attacking runs. He made the play of the game in the fourth quarter, coming downhill fast to force a Hoosiers fumble just outside the goal line. Beavers powered his way to the quarterback on the first play of Indiana's next drive, adding a sack to help to seal the victory.
24) Rachaad White, RB, Arizona State (6-2, 210)
White is giving me Kenyan Drake vibes early in the 2021 season. Last fall, the transfer from Mt. San Antonio College (California) found his way onto scouts' radars with a strong 2020 season for the Sun Devils. The linear runner has plus speed and is willing to lower his pads, which has allowed him to rush for at least one touchdown in each of the team's first four games. He's also ASU's leading receiver (20/187/1), scoring on a double-pass play and making highlight reels by leaping over a defender after the catch during the team's win over Colorado last week.
23) Qwuantrezz Knight, S, UCLA (6-0, 199)
Knight began his career at Maryland (2016-2017), started for one year at Kent State (2019) and then moved out to Westwood before the 2020 season. He's been a stud at the nickel safety position for the Bruins, usually lining up around the line of scrimmage (though he has plenty of experience playing deep). Knight was UCLA's leading tackler in games against Fresno State (9, including 2 for loss) and Stanford (8, including 1.5 for loss) the past two weekends, taking on blocks and attacking plays in the backfield in addition to his coverage duties. He forced a fumble with his high-impact tackling while defending a quick toss to Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers.
22) Zion Johnson, OG, Boston College (6-3, 316)
Johnson transferred from Davidson to Boston College, earning second-team all-conference honors at left guard in 2019 and third-team accolades at left tackle in 2020. He's moved back to left guard this year, exhibiting NFL-quality strength and athleticism on the interior. Temple did not cover Johnson on most plays in the Eagles' 28-3 win a couple weeks ago, so he helped left tackle Tyler Vrabel when needed or looked for second-level targets. When man-up in short-yardage situations, he dropped his hips to drive his man back (or to the ground). It was more of the same last week against Missouri, helping his team get the overtime victory by moving the Tigers' strong, athletic linemen in the run game and anchoring in pass protection.
21) Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah (6-3, 235)
Previous rank: No. 20
Utah's defense couldn't stop the rushing attack of San Diego State a couple weeks ago, with Lloyd often getting negated by Aztec offensive linemen or falling for misdirection plays. When free and seeing the ball, however, he attacked gaps for 2.5 tackles for loss. Lloyd's heads-up fumble recovery (when others thought the play was dead) in the fourth quarter prevented SDSU from putting the game out of reach. Lloyd had eight tackles in the Utes' comeback win over Washington State last week, attacking plays behind the line of scrimmage, twice bringing down running backs and once wrapping up the quarterback for a sack. He also intercepted a quick screen pass on the edge, stretching out to tip it and then securing the ball before hitting the ground.
20) Jaquan Brisker, S, Penn State (6-1, 200)
Previous rank: No. 21
Brisker was all over the field against Auburn in Penn State's home win two weeks ago. He destroyed a tight end block on a quick screen to make a tackle. He played well in two-deep coverage, coming downhill to secure tackles. He did not back down in coverage on a fourth-down play in the end zone late in the game, and then broke up a desperate final throw over the middle to seal the win. Brisker mostly played deep last week against Villanova to prevent big plays, and he rested for some of the first half against the FCS foe. He came on a delayed blitz in the third quarter and pounded the quarterback to force a poor throw -- and punt. Brisker's right shoulder appeared to be bothering him after the hit, but the score (PSU led 24-3) already dictated that his day was done.
19) Bernhard Raimann, OT, Central Michigan (6-7, 305)
Raimann stood up very well to Missouri's strong defensive line in the season opener. The former tight end repeated that performance against LSU and Florida International the past two weekends. The Austria native locks onto defensive ends. His solid hand placement and lateral quickness prevents them from disengaging. He might be the best in college football when it comes to staying with a block to the whistle. Raimann's strong at hitting second-level targets, also sustaining those blocks very well, and shows a nasty attitude that NFL offensive line coaches will love.
18) Chad Muma, LB, Wyoming (6-3, 242)
Previous rank: No. 24
Muma notched his second pick-six in as many weeks in Wyoming's 45-12 win over Ball State two weeks ago. He showed excellent coverage range in that contest, whether dropping in the middle or taking on receivers in the flat. Muma also stopped ball-carriers between the tackles and attacked the quarterback on a blitz, helping one of his teammates force a fumble. The Cowboys' leader posted just three tackles in a 24-22 win over UConn last week, as the Huskies constantly put players in motion, so Muma would follow and they could run or throw behind him. Muma still made one of the biggest plays of the game, though, helping to stop a running back on third-and-short after throwing his body into an oncoming blocker. UConn had to settle for a field goal on that drive.
17) Jamaree Salyer, OL, Georgia (6-4, 325)
Salyer's thick build portends a move from his current left tackle spot to the interior at the next level. But he's been tough to beat on the edge for the past season-plus, continuing to excel during wins over South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the past two weeks. Salyer is stout against bull rushes and has the quick feet to escort rushers around the pocket. He attacked defenders in the run game, led the way on toss sweeps and made crucial blocks on pulls to free up running backs for scores in the two SEC matchups. The lopsided score against Vandy (62-0) allowed coaches to display Salyer's versatility and get younger players some reps; he played left and right guard in the first half before ending his day early in the second half with a brief stint back at left tackle.
16) Cade Otton, TE, Washington (6-5, 250)
Previous rank: No. 16
Otton was wide open for a touchdown catch in Washington's 52-3 thrashing of Arkansas State a couple weeks ago. He also blocked with attitude on the edge and made a tackle after the Red Wolves picked off a Washington pass. He only logged two catches for 23 yards during the one-sided affair. Otton did not play against Cal last week because of COVID-19 protocols.
15) Haskell Garrett, DT, Ohio State (6-2, 300)
Previous rank: No. 18
Garrett did not play against Tulsa but took advantage of a mismatch against Akron's left guard in Ohio State's 59-7 victory last week. He posted three sacks, demonstrating his strength by pushing his man into the backfield on two of the QB takedowns. He showed his quick burst off the ball and a nice arm-over move on the other sack. Garrett had two other stops on the night, while also freeing up teammates on twists by whatever means necessary, before having a seat midway through the third quarter due to the lopsided score.
14) Daniel Faalele, OT, Minnesota (6-9, 380)
Previous rank: No. 15
Faalele helped the Golden Gophers to a 30-0 nonconference road win in Colorado two weeks ago. His ginormous frame made it difficult for Buffaloes defensive end Terrance Lang to get around the edge, although the occasional inside move caused the 380-pounder to get off-balance. Despite his size, Faalele possesses quick enough feet to find correct blocking angles on inside runs. He was a wall in pass protection and crashed the right side of the line on zone plays (creating big holes to run through) against Bowling Green State last week, but it wasn't enough to prevent Minnesota's stunning home loss.
13) Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama (6-1, 194)
Previous rank: No. 8
Jobe was flagged for pass interference twice during Alabama's close encounter with Florida in The Swamp on Sept. 18. The receiver he was covering went for an underthrown ball on the first penalty and contact was minimal on the second. He showed strong press ability and secure open-field tackling throughout the contest, giving up one reception when his man cut inside after Jobe's hips turned to the outside. Southern Miss barely looked Jobe's way last week while getting smashed, 63-14, though he typically neutralized his man with press coverage. He had one nice tackle in the flat, but drew a pass interference penalty when trying to catch up to a receiver after stopping his feet on a double move.
12) Kingsley Enagbare, Edge, South Carolina (6-4, 265)
Previous rank: No. 13
Enagbare and Georgia left tackle Jamaree Salyer (No. 17 on this list) had a fierce battle when the Gamecocks and Bulldogs met a couple weeks ago. Salyer was more physical than his counterpart at times, but Enagbare fought through double-teams to make stops against the run and join teammates on one sack. The South Carolina star had another tough ask last Saturday, taking on Kentucky's Darian Kinnard (No. 6 on this list). He held up well to Kinnard's advances, though he made more hay on other side of the formation, containing the edge and nearly getting a sack (but slipping while turning quickly with bend to get the QB). Enagbare did what he could to help the team get back into the game in the fourth quarter, recovering a fumble downfield and stopping a misdirection play to force a late field goal attempt.
11) Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State (5-11, 184)
Previous rank: No. 12
The "White Out" in Happy Valley turned out well for the Nittany Lions, as they beat Auburn. Dotson didn't have any plays over 25 yards, but he made another fantastic high-point catch on a deep over route and scored by stealthily working the back line of the end zone. The quick and agile playmaker also completed a pass for 22 yards. Dotson scored a 52-yard touchdown on PSU's first play from scrimmage last week against Villanova, beating his man easily as the Wildcats provided no safety help. He was used on quick screens early, lowering his shoulder for a first down when needed, and then caught a couple of intermediate throws in the second and third quarters. Dotson is also the team's punt returner and is dangerous when heading upfield after the catch.
10) Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa (6-7, 321)
Previous rank: No. 10
Penning physically dominated FCS newbie St. Thomas (Minnesota) on Sept. 18, often pushing his man to the turf or driving him backward until the whistle. He was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first half for slamming into a defender as the play ended after he had already thrown him to the ground. Penning still finished his blocks after that play but dialed it back a little. The Panthers did not play last week.
9) Jaxson Kirkland, OT, Washington (6-7, 310)
Previous rank: No. 9
Kirkland and the Huskies bounced back from a tough Week 2 outing in Ann Arbor to pound Arkansas State, 52-3. Kirkland was powerful in the run game and stout as a pass protector. He was also a force in the rushing attack in Washington's overtime win over Cal last week, allowing running back Sean McGrew to go off his backside for multiple runs, including a touchdown. While often solid in pass protection, Kirkland was sent backward when defenders got their hands on his numbers, and he found himself on the ground after one such power rush.
8) Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn (6-0, 190)
Previous rank: No. 14
McCreary proved himself the top senior cornerback prospect by playing well against Penn State's Jahan Dotson (No. 11 on this list) in the Tigers' 28-20 loss at Penn State. He had the speed to stay with Dotson down the sideline and was physical on the line and when making tackles -- not just against Dotson, but in the run game, too. McCreary converted an uncontested interception near the end of the first half. The Tigers had a scare against Georgia State at home last weekend. McCreary was tested on multiple deep throws against bigger receivers, but his foot quickness at the line and his long speed helped him stay with his man down the sideline. He drew a pass interference flag in the second quarter after failing to look back for the ball when he was guarding the intended target, but he did fight the receiver through the catch -- something that NFL scouts appreciate.
7) Jermaine Johnson II, Edge, Florida State (6-5, 262)
Previous rank: No. 6
Johnson was the Seminoles' leading tackler (10 stops) against Wake Forest two weeks ago. He spent most of the game hunting ball-carriers out of the backfield, as the Demon Deacons grabbed the early lead and ran the ball 58 times. He was strong at the point of attack and chased plays to the sideline when needed. Johnson was mostly concerned about quarterback Malik Cunningham running out of the pocket in the team's loss to Louisville last week, whether he was lined up outside or inside for stunts on third downs. The fifth-year senior won with violent hands throughout the game and did get a sack when Cunningham had no choice but to throw late in the first half.
6) Darian Kinnard, OL, Kentucky (6-5, 345)
Previous rank: No. 7
Kentucky had a hard time separating itself from Chattanooga in Week 3, as did the UTC edge defenders from the grasp of Kinnard. He dominated them with his length and strength in pass protection while also exhibiting nimble feet for his size when combo-blocking to the second level. Kinnard took on South Carolina's talented line last weekend. He kept Kingsley Enagbare (No. 12 on this list) out of the backfield when they were matched up, holding the Gamecocks star once as he tried to chase the Kentucky quarterback escaping the pocket to his side. The Wildcats iced the 16-10 win running behind the powerful get-off of their outstanding right tackle late in the fourth quarter. Kinnard bent at the waist several times during the contest, but managed to stay on his block well enough despite his awkward posture.
5) Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia (6-6, 340)
Previous rank: No. 5
Davis took on his old high school teammate, South Carolina center Eric Douglas, in Week 3 and exhibited his typical power (easily shedding single blocks) and scary quickness for his huge size. The defensive tackle beat one of Douglas' fellow lineman's reach blocks for an assisted tackle for loss and later earned a half sack that resulted in a safety. Davis displayed awareness when jumping on a fumble, but the play was ruled dead because the runner's helmet was dislodged. Georgia put up 35 points in the first quarter against Vanderbilt, with Davis showing he could beat a single block up front to get into the backfield. He had no tackles in the game, but only played 12 snaps. He nearly blocked a field goal attempt, and got a chance to lead-block near the goal line (it didn't go well).
4) Adam Anderson, Edge, Georgia (6-5, 230)
Previous rank: No. 4
The Bulldogs blew out South Carolina in Week 3, with Anderson showing he is not just a pass rusher. He's extremely quick off the ball and used his violent hands and flexibility to win the edge to force incompletions, but also bulled the left tackle into the quarterback on one play. Anderson works well off the ball, lining up against a receiver outside on one snap and working through blocks on run plays. He did not contribute much against Vanderbilt, playing only 15 snaps and making no tackles, since the game was out of hand so quickly.
3) Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State (6-1, 188)
Previous rank: No. 3
The Buckeyes' veteran receiver did not have a catch against Tulsa in Week 3, with quarterback C.J. Stroud missing him twice and one pass hitting Olave in the hands (he was unable to bring it in with the sun affecting his vision). He brought in one deep throw for a 47-yard gain, but the play was called back due to a penalty on an offensive lineman. Olave was only targeted three times in the team's big win over Akron, but scored on a "pass" behind the line of scrimmage (in effect, a jet sweep) where his quickness with the ball in his hand was evident.
2) Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan (6-6, 265)
Previous rank: No. 2
Michigan had little trouble with Northern Illinois in Week 3, so Hutchinson didn't have to make many plays in the 63-10 demolition. But his final play (in the third quarter) was a sack. He swiped away the right tackle and hustled to bring down the scrambling quarterback. Hutchinson also had a sack from his stand-up edge position against Rutgers in the Wolverines' tight win last week, shedding a tight end block and corralling the passer on the run. His quickness off the snap helped him win when one-on-one and he is willing to work through double-teams (of which he sees a fair number) to crash on inside runs.
1) Malik Willis, QB, Liberty (6-1, 225)
Previous rank: No. 1
Willis consistently displayed excellent velocity on throws across the field in Liberty's Week 3 win over Old Dominion and narrow Week 4 loss to Syracuse, making plays against Cover 2 multiple times. He also exhibited nice touch on throws over the top in the past couple of weeks, missing once but connecting three times for scores. Willis' running ability gave the Monarchs and Orange fits. He was able to evade defenders in the backfield and lower his shoulder in the open field. However, he took three unnecessary sacks against ODU and a couple against Syracuse, one resulting in a fumble that allowed the Orange to pull out the win. Willis hasn't thrown an interception yet this year, but ball security must be the top priority if he is to be considered among the best quarterback prospects in the draft.
A dozen more to watch
Listed in alphabetical order:
- Amaré Barno, Edge, Virginia Tech (6-6, 245)
- Markquese Bell, S, Florida A&M (6-3, 205)
- Coby Bryant, CB, Cincinnati (6-1, 198)
- Zachary Carter, Edge, Florida (6-4, 285)
- James Cook, RB, Georgia (5-11, 190)
- Avery Davis, WR, Notre Dame (5-11, 202)
- Charlie Kolar, TE, Iowa State (6-6, 260)
- Abraham Lucas, OT, Washington State (6-7, 319)
- Thayer Munford, OT, Ohio State (6-6, 320)
- Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh (6-3, 220)
- Khalil Shakir, WR, Boise State (6-0, 190)
- Perrion Winfrey, DT, Oklahoma (6-4, 292)